52 pages 1 hour read

Monica Sone

Nisei Daughter

Nonfiction | Autobiography / Memoir | Adult | Published in 1979

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Nisei Daughter recounts Monica Sone’s childhood in Seattle’s Japanese American community and her experience in the internment camps that housed residents of Japanese ethnicity between 1942 and 1946. The memoir, which has become a seminal text in Asian American studies, was first published in 1953 and then republished in 1979 and 2014, each time with an introduction that reframes the work in its context.

The memoir begins with Sone’s realization that she is “a Japanese” when she is six years old and blissfully unaware that her ethnicity is a marker of differentiation (3). As a little girl, Sone enjoys the boisterous, sometimes rough atmosphere of the Carrollton Hotel, where she lives with her family. She resents having to go to Japanese school, where she is expected to behave like an obedient and demure young lady. Sone feels that she develops two personalities: one for her English grammar school and the other for Japanese school and visits from her mother’s strict Japanese friends, like Mrs. Matsui. Nevertheless, Sone enjoys participating in Japanese events, including the annual undo-kai picnic, and is excited for the family’s visit to Japan.

In Japan, Sone meets her father’s relatives and is able to experience uniquely Japanese traditions, such as silkworm cultivation, temple rituals, and outdoor country baths. However, tragedy strikes when her brother, Kenji, catches a fever and dies. The family has to leave Grandfather Itoi behind in Japan, owing to a 1924 law preventing new immigration from Asian countries.

As relations between Japan and the United States take a turn for the worse, Sone begins to experience prejudice; people look at her suspiciously in the streets and restrict her family’s access to certain opportunities and parts of town. Sone wishes to go to college, but her father insists that she ought to be more practical and attend business school. After completing her business degree in a single year, Sone contracts tuberculosis and ends up in a sanitarium. There, she meets a group of lively Caucasian girls and learns to prioritize enthusiasm and friendliness over politeness.

Sone leaves the sanitarium to attend Washington University, and her family moves into a spacious new house. All seems to be going well until there is an announcement that the Japanese army has bombed Pearl Harbor. When America declares war on Japan, Sone and her family have to leave their home and go to an internment camp for people of Japanese ethnicity. At both their temporary camp, Puyallup, near Seattle, and their permanent camp, Minidoka, in Idaho, Sone and her fellow inmates try to make the best of the situation. Camp life is highly organized, with employment opportunities and social activities, but it is nevertheless humiliating and depressing.

In 1943, the American government permits Nisei, second-generation Japanese, to leave the camp, provided they have a job. The Issei, or first-generation Japanese, who were never permitted to be naturalized as American citizens must remain in the camp. Sone at first leaves for Chicago, where she becomes a dentist’s assistant, and finally for Wendell College, in Indiana, where she flourishes both academically and socially, making friends of all races. The memoir ends on an optimistic note, as Sone is both appreciative of her Japanese heritage and her Americanness, feeling at last like “a whole person instead of a sadly split personality” (238).